Pema Tseten Lachungpa
Pema Tseten Lachungpa has completed PhD in International Relations from Sikkim University in 2021, and is an Independent Researcher with interests covering International Relations and Politics, Security aspects of India, geo-politics of Myanmar.
After a gap of more than five years since the horrific attacks on the security convoy that killed more than 18 security forces in Northeast India, the armed militants yet again conducted a similar attack. This time it was the Assam Rifles convoy. The attack killed five security forces, including a colonel, his wife, and their eight-year-old son and injured six other personnel. The ambush was conducted when the security in Northeast India wasundergoing a drastic change both in terms of objectives and outreach. Right at the heart of the ambush, there were questions whether China has any role to play i. Similarly, inter-ethnic rivalry and mistrust also made headlines. Answering these queries will bring a justification to the questions of the existence of the insecurity paradox and the constant attack by the militants in the region. However, one thing we have missed in this picture is Myanmar and its changing political landscape, which equally played a role in the ambush.
Myanmar, previously called Burma, has always shared cordial relations with India ever since its independence. Such cordial relations are deeply rooted in shared historical, ethnic, cultural and religious ties between the two countries.. Similarly, the geographical location of the region sharing land and maritime boundary with India also acts as an impetus in pushing the significance of the relations. These factors provide the foundations for a stronger relationship between the two nations and engagementin the field of common interests. India is Myanmar’s 4th largest trading partner after Thailand, China and Singapore and the second-largest export market after Thailand. Similarly, India is also actively involved in over a dozen projects in Myanmar both in infrastructural and non-infrastructural areas.
However, Myanmar’s changing political landscape presents a complex threat on the security front between the two nations. Despite India’s successful counter operation attempts against the militants with the help of Myanmar, there is still an intricacy in the overall security cooperation between India and Myanmar. India’s security relation with Myanmar has always been complex. Although military to military engagement between India and Myanmar gained traction with the goodwill visit of the then Chief of Army Staff, General B.C. Joshi to Myanmar in 1994, followed by the supply of military hardware and technologies; however, the scope for the expansion of defence and security cooperation has been limited. This is due to the changing nature of the political landscape in Myanmar, which has created a complex pattern of insecurity paradox in the region.
First and foremost, ever since its independence in 1948, Myanmar has been under military rule for most of its time. The military rule created an upheaval in India’s security engagement with Myanmar for various reasons. In the initial phase of the military rule in Myanmar, democratic India could not subscribe to the human rights violations that were occurring in Myanmar. India viewed the military rule as a threat to global democratic values and aligned itself firmly with the pro-democracy camps. The outcome of such action led China to expedite its expansion in Myanmar. Although India’s democratic and human rights leverage was cut short by New Delhi’s realistic approach in pursuing and promoting India’s strategic ambitions in Southeast Asia, by then Myanmar solely relied on China for political, security and economic support. For this reason, Myanmar security relations with India failed to achieve the much-needed objective it desired. Despite the existence of the security cooperation initiatives between India and Myanmar in countering terror threats in the region, it has failed to eliminatethe militancy problem in the region.
Second, the constantly changing political landscape in Myanmar has led its institutions to focus their attention on the counter-productive forces led by ethnic groups opposing the nature and the objective of the military regime. However, in this instance, the government has failed to create an integrated border management policy that can control and pacify security threats. Besides, the Tatmadaw border control mechanism also suffers from its limited role in border management since the ethnic groups living on the border like Kachin and Shan have their armies (like the Kachin Independent Army and Shan State Army) to guard the borders. In such an environment, militants, including the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K) who have bases across both sides of the borders, take advantage of the porous border to meet their objectives. The recent ambush showcases the advantageous position of the militants as they fled into the Myanmar territory after the attack.
Thirdly, most of the insurgent groups from Northeast India,including the NSCN-K, have a commanding base on both sides of the borders. Indeed, NSCN-K has a cordial relationship with the Myanmar government, making its operation a great success. This is the reason that the NSCN-K abrogated a ceasefire with India and joined hands with the Myanmar army as it gave them greater benefits in calibrating its position and objectives alongside maintaining a degree of friendship with Myanmar. The recent attack by the Manipur based militant group People Liberation Army (PLA) showcases the greater motive of the militants in creating insecurity on the Indian side of the border. The PLA is a signatory to the umbrella group called the United Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFW) formed under the leadership of NSCN-K alongside other militant groups of Northeast India. Being the signatory, the outfits receive a supply of arms and ammunition and safe havens on the Myanmar side of the border.
Fourth, the changing political landscape and the failed border control mechanism have created rampant drug smuggling and gun running along the India-Myanmar border. Indian militants are procuring arms and ammunition from the black markets of Southeast Asia through their dealers and local based rebel groups. Also, weapons produced in China are finding their route in Northeast India through various mafia groups operating in Yunnan province (Sen, 2020). Besides, reports cite that late Myanmar is emerging as a significant source of manufacturing small arms that land up regularly in the hand of the militants of Northeast India (Routray, 2015). Similarly, the illegal flow of drugs and chemicals also acts as a compounding factor in funding the activities of the militants. The location of the India-Myanmar border close to the ‘Golden Triangle’ acts as a proliferating environment for traffickers to smuggle substances across the borders and in the continuance of militancy in Northeast India.
These compounding factors, therefore, favor the existence of the militants in the region and have created insecurity along the India-Myanmar border. The recent ambush that killed a colonel and his family proves the point that security alongside India-Myanmar has become more tense and critical after the military takeover of Myanmar in February 2021. The current Myanmar situation has once again opened the gate for the insurgent as its breeding ground to reignite the dozed militancy in the region. The coup has created an additional complication by introducing a fresh fluidity in the murky world of shifting allegiances in which the militants, drugs and spies move. For instance, there are reports which cite that the military regime in Myanmar has given the Indian militants based in Myanmar a new role in attacking refugees who are fleeing the nation. Reports have emerged that Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) have struck a deal with the Indian militant groups to carry out attacks on the fleeing refugees in return for safe havens inside Myanmar territory, which otherwise was looking bleak due to various coordinated operations by India-Myanmar security forces in the past (The Morung Express, 2021).
Such changing security nomenclature in Northeast India is taking a drastic toll on the security forces in its operation. Lately, the militants have adopted fresh tactics and strategies to regain their lost ground of relevance. Many militants have demonstrated a tendency to operate jointly and coordinate their attack. Similarly, the use of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) is also emerging as a major preponderant against the security forces (Kapoor, 2019: 5). Such improvised strategies of the militants have once again driven India to rethink its security options in Northeast India and its engagement pattern with Myanmar. There is a dire need on the Indian side to play a constructive role in the current political situation in Myanmar so that the security environment at the border remains at peace and also boost its area of engagement with Myanmar.
Sen SR (2020) China supplying arms, providing hideouts to northeast militants via Myanmar, India alleges. 7 December. https://theprint.in/defence/china-supplying-arms-providing-hideouts-to-northeast-militants-via-myanmar-india-alleges/561891/ (accessed 1 December 2021).
Routray BP (2015) Made in Myanmar: Small Arms for North-eastern Insurgents. 13 July. http://mantraya.org/made-in-myanmar-small-arms-for-the-north-eastern-insurgents/ (accessed 1 December 2021).
Kapoor R (2019) NE Insurgency: Need to Recalibrate. Issue Brief No.164, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS). https://www.claws.in/static/IB164_NE-Insurgency-Need-to-Recalibrate.pdf (accessed 1 December 2021).
The Morung Express (2021) Myanmar military using NE rebels to attack refugees. 18 April. https://morungexpress.com/myanmar-military-using-ne-rebels-to-attack-refugees (accessed 1 December 2021).